Most Christians in America have experienced some variation of the following scene during a recent Christmas Eve. You just left a Christmas Eve service, having sung “O Holy Night” with all of your might, tears streaming down your face astounded by the profound nature of the Incarnation. Then somehow, hours later, you find yourself searching the aisles of Walmart with “Santa Baby” playing in the background as you anxiously scan for some last-minute gift that will be exactly what your loved one “wanted for Christmas.”
Christmas gift-giving can be a pretty anxiety-inducing and even guilt-ridden experience for most of us. I think part of the reason is that, on the one hand, Christmas is a profoundly religious season full of meaning and significance; on the other hand, it is a blatantly consumeristic event that comes around once a year. These two realities get meshed-together in our hearts and minds. It gets especially confusing when our practice of exchanging gifts at Christmas is meant to be some sort of meaningful reflection of the greatest gift ever given– God’s gift to us of His Son in the Incarnation. But let’s face it– as you stand in Walmart wringing your hands in hopes of finding exactly what so-and-so wanted, it feels like a pretty pale reflection of the greatest gift ever given. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so pale a reflection.
I want to share with you how God helped me rediscover the heart of a gift by encountering a real-life Christmas story from the life of Mother Teresa, as recounted by her long-time friend and collaborator Father Hnilica. Now as you read the story, I want to invite you to be aware of your own gut reaction to the story.
It is Christmas eve in Calcutta, and the Sisters of Charity are having their very modest Christmas Eve meal and celebration when suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.
One of the nuns goes to see who it is and returns with a basket covered in cloth. ‘A woman gave it to me and then rushed off,’ she said. As she gives the basket to Mother Teresa, the sister adds, ‘She was probably a benefactor who wanted to donate some food to us for Christmas.’ Mother Teresa removes the cloth and her eyes light up. ‘Jesus has arrived,‘ she says with a beautiful smile. The other nuns run to see. In the basket, there lies a sleeping baby boy.
He was an abandoned baby only a few days old; the woman who had brought him, perhaps his mother, was unable to look after him and so entrusted him to the nuns– a frequent occurrence in Calcutta. The nuns squeal with joy and hold onto the basket, moved by the sight of the sleeping baby. Their cries wake him up, and he begins to cry. Mother Teresa picks him up, smiling, with tears in her eyes. ‘Look, now we can say that our Christmas is complete,’ she said. ‘Baby Jesus has come to us. We must thank God for this wonderful gift.’ A powerful emotion emanated from her, a protective force which was her great love.’
Now, honestly, how did you experience this story? Maybe you’re not as much of a cynic as I am, but personally, I was actually kind of put-off by the story. Why, my thinking went, would anyone’s “eyes light up” upon discovering an abandoned baby? A child has just been abandoned by its mother for whatever reasons, and the sisters are “squealing for joy?’ Doesn’t this kind of seem almost wrong? Going so far as to call the abandoned baby a “wonderful gift”!?
But then I said to myself, Wait a minute. This is Mama T, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, and I decided to reread the story, this time inviting God to help me understand what was happening. And here is what I discovered.
I was incredulous at this account initially because I was assuming that their joy came through experiencing this “gift” as the fulfillment of a want. And of course I did, as I function in a consumer-driven culture where gifts are given in an attempt to satisfy wants. A little boy squeals for joy Christmas morning when he unwraps a present to discover he got what he “wanted” for Christmas.
But, wait a minute, did God give Israel, and us the church, the gift of the Messiah because He thought that is what we wanted? Do we really conceive of God as a cosmic parent, anxiously wringing his hands on the eve of the Incarnation, hoping that perhaps his children are going to be excited to find Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning because he is exactly what they wanted?
No, God gave us Jesus not because he is what we wanted, and while he is what we need, I think there is more to it than that as well.
Mother Teresa’s eyes lit up not because she wanted an abandoned baby for Christmas, nor even because she saw a duty she needed to fulfill; her eyes lit up because the moment she saw that baby she knew she was being given the chance to share love with that baby, and through that baby to share love with God himself.
On my first reading, I was disturbed only because I, like a good consumer, was subconsciously thinking Mother Teresa’s joy at receiving this “gift” must indicate that she wanted an abandoned child for Christmas, and if so, there is something wrong with her. But I was assuming a consumer-driven notion of the purpose of a gift.
God entrusted us with Jesus, because through the gift of Jesus he was able to display his love and invite us to display our own in return. And that is the true heart of all good Christmas gift-giving: not the fulfillment of wants, but the display of love.
How might our own exchanging of gifts change during Christmas if we took a similar approach? Might our own practice– motivated not by the desire to satiate wants but by the desire to display love– become a better reflection of who God is and why He chose to do what he did the very first Christmas Eve? May it be so. Merry Christmas!